These two articles give you a flavour of the history of the Barrow Navigation and Grand Canal. Many other similiar articles and accounts exist in libraries, museums and in the minds of the boatmen who plied their trade upon these ancient waterways.
Early in the 17th century New Ross began to decline and in 1686 Waterford was granted control of the tidal portion of the Barrow. I mention this to stress that the trade of the area served by the Barrow Navigation was with Waterford and not as today with Dublin. I would also like to stress that this article is not meant to be a history of the Barrow Navigation Company but just a story of the boats that plied their trade on the river.
It was in 1792 that the Barrow Navigation Company was incorporated by an Act of Parliament with capital of £50,000 in shares of £50 each. The object of this was to canalise the river and make it navigable for boats carrying up to 40 tons. The Barrow was to be linked up with the recently built Grand Canal at Athy. This canal made it unnecessary to canalise the Barrow above Athy and the stretch of the river above the town became disused for navigation.
This work of adapting the Barrow covered the building of locks and weirs with which most of us are familiar. In the thirties of the last century the river bed below Clashganny was deepened by blasting of the rocks which obstructed navigation. About the same time the new lock below Carlow was built. Apart from these and other minor works, the navigation works remain unchanged since they were completed in the last decade of the eighteenth century.
After 1792 the Barrow Navigation Company were proprietors of the river navigation from Athy to St Mullins. Trade was carried out by independent boat owners and the company derived its revenue from tolls. Carlow was the company’s headquarters. At Athy, Bagnelstown and Graignamanagh the company’s representatives, or collectors gathered the tolls. The boats were expensive because all the iron work had to be wrought by hand and gave considerable employment. There were dry-docks at Rathellen near Bagnelstown, at Graignamanagh and at Carlow for carrying out repairs. These docks have been disused for many years and all repairs are now carried out in Dublin.
Bargees and men around waterfronts do not as a rule bear too good a reputation in all countries. Barrow boatmen were an outstanding exception. They were highly respected and there was never any river crime on the river.
The boat owners took pride in describing themselves as boat-men. It is interesting to observe that the old english word for ship owner was ship-man and presumably boat-man meant the owner of a boat. As the name was highly esteemed, one presumes that it was the designation of the merchant boat owners who operated fleets of clarachawns in the pre-canalised days.
Before the days of the steam engine the boats were provided with long sweeps of oars for propulsion in the tidal waters and a small square sail was set on a mast stepped forward. The mast could be lowered and removed when not in use. The crew of a Barrow boat was two men. The rudder was lashed and the two men worked the oars. If the wind was favourable the sail was hoisted and as the boats always travelled with the tide this method of travel served well enough. Privately owned or ” hack ” boats used sails and oars as late as 1914.
Private boat owners in these days were people of some standing. They were all well to do and in many cases wealthy. Old people have told me that the river trade was then lucrative and the principle boat owners had five or six boats each. Many of them were also corn buyers and malsters. In Bagnelstown the building in which the Bank of Ireland agency is now located was originally built as the private residence of Mr Singleton, a boat owner. The Wards of Bagnelstown were also considerable boat owners. There was one boat owned in Leighlinbridge by a man named Washington. Graignamanagh from its location near the tidal water took a leading part in the trade. Among the main owners were the Haydens and the Ryans. The former family once operated at least six boats.
Until the railways came the boat owners appear to have enjoyed a period of unexampled prosperity. In 1850 the railways were extended to Carlow. An old boatman who as a child had seen the Grand Canal Packet boats arriving at Athy often told the story of the desertion of the river that took place after the railway arrived. Now only an occasional boat passed where but a short while before there were whole trains of laden barges travelling to and fro.
The directors of the Barrow Navigation company saw that their undertaking was in danger of being superseded. The railway began the end of the private boat owner and the Barrow Navigation Company in order to preserve their revenue decided to run the boats themselves for cargoes. They bought from the private owners the best boats on the river. They erected stores for goods and stables for horses at various points. Collectors at Waterford and Ross were made agents who dealt with traffic like the railway goods agents.
On the tidal waters the boats were towed by steam tugs but they were too long for the locks and could not ascend the river above St Mullins. About 1902 these tugs trailing about six or seven barges were replaced by steam driven wooden barges. These boats were not suitable for the Barrow. They were very dirty and dangerous, as many men lost their lives when they came suddenly on deck, blinded by the glow of the furnace below they frequently lost their footing and fell overboard.
On the whole there were very few accidents on the river as the men were very experienced. Navigation in the lower reaches of the river required ability and the Graig boatmen were classes as skilled workers. An experienced boatman was really a river pilot. Boatmen employed by the Barrow Navigation Company came mostly from Graignamanagh or Graigcullen – then called Carlow-Graig. About 1870 the then manager in Carlow, Rowan Mc Combe had cottages built for these boatmen in both places and many of them are still inhabited.
Today there are few boatmen from Graigecullen but the Graignamanagh men are still numerous upon the river. No town on the river which supplied boatmen in past years had such a tradition of boating as Graignamanagh. In Graignamanagh the business of the boatman has been held in peculiar respect , almost like a medieval guild. Generations of boat people have inter-married, a feature of sea-faring communities in different parts of Ireland and elsewhere. A further remarkable fact that for as long back as I can trace – that is 150 years – nearly all the boatmen have hailed from the western bank of the river and none from the pale bank. This applies alike in Carlow and Graignamanagh.
It is probable that the same is true in ancient times up to the beginning of inland navigation in Norman times. In pre-Norman times, I have already shown that there was a considerable trade between St Mullins and foreign ports. I suspect that when the Normans came they probably manned their own ships and the Irish seamen became redundant. What is more natural that they should have found employment as fishermen and longshoremen and the newly opened river trade. It seems safe to assert that in Graignamanagh where there is such a strong tradition of boating, that the boatmen are the descendants of the boatmen of the middle ages.
Indeed, it would appear probable that they would derive from the Irish seamen who manned the ships that sailed to Gaul and abroad in pre-Norman times. What makes this seem probable is that at the commencement of the present century a great proportion of the trade on the estuary was transacted by large luggers, called Gabbards ( French Gabare) whose home-port was New Ross. These probably sailed cross channel in former days.
It seems significant that the Norman French term should have been applied to the sea going craft, while the Irish word clarachawn was used to identify boats used on inland reaches of the Barrow. During the period of the Barrow Navigation Company the river was kept clear by a dredge consisting of a leather bag let down into the water from a small wooden derrick or crane and operated by a windlass. This primitive contrivance was worked by two men. It was attached to an ordinary cargo boat. It is hard to imagine how this could compare with the modern steam dredger. Strange to relate, this antiquated contraption kept the river open from 1792 to 1894. When the Grand Canal Company took over, the river was quite navigable.
Nowadays the river below Carlow is all silted up and the navigation is imperfect. I have heard old river men say that the proper way to dredge a river is to remove the obstruction and allow the river to dredge itself. Many of these old-time dredger men knew their river and their knowledge was the secret of the Barrow Navigation Company’s success in keeping the channel free for boats for over a hundred years.
When the Grand Canal Company took over the river in 1894 it was in their interest to facilitate trade to and from Waterford, as the trade at the time was very extensive. It son began to decline. In the 70’s and 80’s of the last century boat-loads of pigs were frequently shipped to Waterford. Pigs from Tullow used to be carted to Bagnelstown and shipped from there. This is the only livestock ever carried on the Barrow boats. There was never a passenger service on the Barrow, though in pre motor days excursions by boat were popular. Considerable quantities of turf were carried by the privately owned boats up to recent years, but that trade has also declined.
As the Grand Canal Company was merged in 1894 with the Barrow Navigation Company, so in 1950 when the Irish transport was brought under one wing called Coras Iompair Eireann, the Grand Canal Company and the Barrow were acquired by the government and placed under CIE’s control. Now CIE can make what is in truth the assertion that one part of its undertaking dates back tenuously perhaps to the twelfth century. The Barrow Navigation today is a problem. Navigation has grown less and less down the years and this excellent and cheap means of transport does not seem to get the attention it deserves. I do not wish to raise contentious matters. Suffice to say that a study of past history might well assist the powers that be in solving their problems much more easily than most people imagine.
Some stories may give the impression that the boatmen of old were inordinately addicted to pilfering. The reverse is true. Many boatmen preserved goods from damage by taking special care of them. What gave rise to a lot of stories of pilfering was the fact that in warm weather casks of ale or porter had frequently to be vented and some of the contents drawn off to prevent them bursting. This practice had the tacit consent of the owners who were only too glad to receive their goods undamaged even if a little under measure.
A certain boat when taking in cargo in Waterford in the eighteenth century received among other items a strong, oblong, wooden case. It was consigned to an address in Dublin. There were no indication on the case or manifest as to the contents. Nor could the boatmen learn anything about it, except that it had come from abroad. Now the boatmen are always careful when loading and are anxious to know the contents of their goods. Two of the men examining the case in transit noticed moisture at the joinings. Rubbing some of it on his finger he smelt and tasted it and found it to be excellent rum. He promptly called his companion and they deliberated as to the contents. A queer way to send spirits, they agreed. But who knew what new fangled methods were being adopted in foreign parts.
Such a merciful dispensation of providence was not to be neglected. With the aid of a gimlet and a bucket they soon had a modicum of the contents for their delectation, which they voted to be the best of rum. Having taken as much as they could with safety, they added some water to make good the extraction and sealed up the case. Approaching Dublin they were met by a mounted groom inquiring if they had a case aboard. They said they had and the groom turned his horse and galloped away. The men were puzzled until coming into the city basin they observed a hearse and a couple of carriages drawn up nearby with a number of grooms and gentlemen standing around. the two boatmen were transfixed. When the boat came alongside, the hearse drove over. Removing their hats, the grooms and gentlemen came aboard and to the horror of the boatmen took possession of the cask and bore it reverently away.
The story bears the marks of probability and dates from pre-rail days. The corpse was apparently shipped on a sailing vessel from some foreign place, perhaps Newfoundland, which had a trade with Waterford in those days of the early eighteenth century. Old sailors were very suspicious and the presence of a corpse on board was regarded as very unlucky. So it was necessary to adopt some subterfuge to ship the pickled remains.
The Grand Canal, which flows on it’s structured, quiet way, through Eastern and Midland counties provided a life-line for town’s along it’s route in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Barges brought passengers and goods from Dublin to the distant ports of New Ross and Shannon Harbour. Small industries developed along it’s banks. To cater for the needs of overnight visitors the Grand Canal Company built five hotels for the convenience of their passengers. Mid-eighteenth century was a time of newly awakening interest in the possibilities of canal transport.
Robertstown near the Summit
Twenty nine years after work on the Grand Canal started, the waterway reached Robertstown. The Kildare town was built and developed in the canal era with a thriving warehouse depot and a canal hotel. Robertstown is near the summit level of the Grand Canal. Below it is the Milltown Feeder. It is a major water source for the canal. It brings crystal-clear water from the seven springs of Pollardstown. Water here is said to be so clear that a coin dropped into a full lock is plainly visible.
At Lowtown Wharf the Barrow Line branches to the south. To the west travels the Shannon Line in through Edenderry, Rhode, Daingean, Tullamore, Shannon Harbour and the River Shannon. On the Barrow Line construction work brought the waterway to Monasterevan by 1786. Barges were now able to pass near Kildare’s famous Hill of Allen where Finn MacCool is reputed to have lived. The tower is a folly erected about 1860 by one of the Aylmer family on a site of a pre-historic tumulus.
Construction of the canal ran into difficulty at Ballyteague. Bog subsidence eventually forced the canal company to construct a new stretch of canal which became known a the New Barrow Line. Just below this area is Ballyteague Castle, thought to have been a Geraldine Castle and Silken Thomas is said to have taken refuge here after the Battle of Allen in 1535. Before it was repaired the castle walls showed the marks of cannon balls fired from Crosspatrick Hill in the assault of the Cromwellian generals, Hewson and Reynolds in 1650. The district around the Hill of Allen was the scene of many engagements between Cromwell’s Ironsides and the Royalist forces. The former seeking to capture the Castles of Kilmeague and Ballyteague.
In this area of Northwest Kildare there are numerous mementoes of the Patrician era. St. Patrick is said to have trod on portion of an ancient road near Ballyteague Castle on his way to Kilpatrick.
Still flowing through the Bog of Allen the Barrow Line reaches it’s first town, Rathdangan. It is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters for the lavish hospitality to poets, minstrels and mendicant friars of Margaret O’Connell. She was wife the of O’Conner Faly and died in 1451. The deVesey’s founded a castle on Rathangan, which after the Anglo-Norman invasion passed into the hands of the first Geraldine Earl of Kildare.
Closed in 1798
The canal was closed and much damage caused to it’s stores as both military and insurgents used them as a means of defence. Business boomed when the canal re-opened. Large quantities of military stores were transported by barge. Passengers also turned to the canal as a means of travel. It was considered safer to travel by boat than by road.
By 1786 the Barrow Line had reached Monasterevan. At Monasterevan the canal crosses an aqueduct built in 1826 over the River Barrow before flowing on south towards Athy. This stretch was opened in 1791. Monasterevan then became an important junction where passengers changed to connect with boats on other lines such as the now closed Mountmellick Line. A Coach service provided linked the town with Kilkenny, Limerick and eventually Cashel. Before reaching Athy the waterway passes Riverstown. Here there is a St. Brigid’s Well. An unusual feature of the landscape is a hill, celebrated in Spencer’s “Fairy Queen”. Vickerstown is another pleasant village on the Canal it is noted for it’s annual Boat rally.
The Grand Canal meets with the River Barrow in Athy. A ford which gives the town it’s Irish name. Athy has always been an important river crossing. It dates from the foundation of two monasteries, the Dominican and Crouched Friars, near the crossing. It is believed the first recorded bridge built over the Borrow in the town was in 1413. Whyte’s Castle was built at this crossing in 1506 by the 8th Earl of Kildare.
From Athy to Carlow the River Barrow and the canal merge at many points. Passenger boats first travelled on the Grand Canal in August 1780. It was a big development. Transport up to then was surprisingly underdeveloped. Coaches from Dublin to Kilkenny went four days a week and a journey from Galway to Dublin took three days. Seeking the potential passengers, the Directors of the Grand Canal built a special boat when the section to Sallins was completed. An improved version was built in 1781, it was 52 feet long by 9 feet 10 inches beam and had two cabins instead of one. For a time these boats were fitted with a mast, yard, and sail to increase speed when the wind was favourable.
Rev. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gives the first recorded account of a traveller on the Grand Canal. “Wednesday 22nd of June, 1785, I went with twelve of fourteen of our friends on the canal to Prosperous. It is a most elegant way of travelling little inferior to that of Tracksuyts in Holland. We had fifty of sixty persons in the boat, many of whom desired me to give them a sermon. I did so, and they were all attention.”
The first recorded account of travel on the Barrow section of the Grand Canal comes from the pen of Monsieur Latocnaye’s in his “A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland in 1796”. He stated “I stopped at Carlow, situated on the Barrow, which joins with the Grand Canal of Ireland. Wishing to see something of this waterway I went to Athy, from whence there is every day a service of public boats to Dublin. The Canal boats are very comfortable, being indeed like those of Holland, but the cost here is nearly double. The Canal is a magnificent piece of work, crossing immense tracts of moor, wher 10 or 12 feet of peat have been removed before reaching earth in which the waterway could be cut. several aquaducts have been necessary, one of them of really prodigious length and height”.
In 1818 there were ten passenger boats and three hundred and seventy five trading boats operating on the Grand Canal. A passenger boat completed the 80 mile journey to the Shannon in 18 hours. The first class fare was a guinea and fourteen shillings second class. In a good year as many as a hundred thousand passengers travelled by water. Strict regulations controlled drinking on board a passenger boat. Each individual was restricted to one pint of wine during the journey. Smoking was not allowed in cabins and gambling was outlawed on Sunday’s. Crews consisted of a master, a steerer, a stop man and a boy. There was also a cook, usually the master’s wife, a barmaid and waitresses. Towing horses were ridden by postillions wearing attractive uniforms.
To accommodate travellers the Directors of the Grand Canal built five hotels along it’s route. The hotels were never very successful and before long were rented to outsiders and ceased to operate as hotels. The hotel at Robertstown was built on a lavish scale in 1801 but by 1813 it was advertised for letting “as a hotel or otherwise”. It continued in business as a hotel and one of the earliest tenants, Robert Whyte, paid £50 in rent to the canal company in 1825. His account books, written in a large copperplate hand indicate various transactions connected with travel and trade on the canal. It’s contents show that when four Directors of the canal stayed in Robertstown on March 5, 1831 their bill for supper six shillings, punch three shillings, ale six pennies and beds six shillings.
In 1820 Robertstown hotel was used for a Diocesan Conference by the great J.K.L. Dr. Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. Robert Whyte died in 1844 and was buried in the family plot at the old graveyard in Allen. During the year following his death traffic on the Grand Canal reached it’s peak, with 111, 225 passengers and 286,601 tons of cargo carried. The hotel in Robertstown closed in 1853 when a decline in canal traffic made the venture unprofitable.
It was the railways which sounded the death knell for barge travel on Ireland’s inland waterways system. Passengers had found a faster method of getting across the country. By 1852 only the trading boats remained. The canals still continued to transport a large amount of material and the Grand Canal Company continued to prosper. The decline only set in with the development of road transport with its increased speed and reduction in handling. In 1950 the Grand Canal Company was taken over by the State Controlled Coras Iompair Eireann and all barges were withdrawn from the canal in 1959.
Early canals were made for irrigation
Romans constructed many
Chinese built a manageable canal in the 13th century and called it The Grand Canal. It linked the rivers Pei-ho and the well-known Yang-tse-Keang.
Some say the Dutch invented locks to overcome levels. Leonardo da Vinci, painter, engineer and universal genius, built six locks, uniting the canals of Milan in 1487.
Brindley, a wheelwright and self-taught engineer, constructed the first canal in Britain in the 1760s, with tunnels and aqueducts, from the coal mines of the Duke of Bridgewater, from Worsley to Manchester and from the Trent river in the Mersey.
The latter joined the North Sea to the Irish Sea.
These canals first brought the coal on barges drawn by horses for the steam-driven cotton and other mills.
They were also a safe transport for the famous porcelain manufacturer, Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795), the breakage of whose fragile goods on the roads absorbed his profits.